“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.”-Henri J.M. Nouwen
Lent is the perfect time to renew our prayer life. In the spiritual classic “The Way of a Pilgrim” the pilgrim is thinking about his difficulty with prayer. He loves God yet he finds it difficult to spend time with God in prayer. He laments his sloth and is troubled by the fact that he eagerly occupies most of his time with any unimportant trifle that comes his way. Days spent in futile and fruitless busyness seem to laboriously drag on, yet he knows the time he does spend in the presence of God slips by unnoticed and leaves him regenerated. Yet he still does not spend the time alone with God. He says:
If one person loves another, he thinks of him throughout the day without ceasing, he pictures him to himself, he cares for him, and in all circumstances his beloved friend is never out of his thoughts. But, I , throughout the day, scarcely set aside even a single hour in which to sink deep down into meditation upon God, to inflame my heart with love of Him, while I eagerly give up twenty-three hours as fervent offerings to the idols of my passion. I am forward in talk about frivolous matters and things which degrade the spirit; that gives me pleasure. But in consideration of God I am dry, bored and lazy.
Somehow the candid observations of an unknown man traveling across rural Russia in the 1850’s on a journey to his spiritual father often touches a harmonious chord within me. I can’t begin to imagine how many hours I have wasted in front of the television. Taoism suggests that when the mind is wild, the spirit is distracted. The onslaught of images and ideas from both the frivolous programs which pander to our basest instincts and from the commercials which often use sex and empty promises to stimulate sales, combine to create a wild mind…wild in the sense of being over-hyped or stimulated. For many people, if not most, television offers a distraction from the cares and pressures of the day. Even though we sit passively in front of the television, the effect it has on us is far from calming. As a Taoist would say, “When the spirit is distracted, it will attach itself to the ten thousand things.”
The distracted mind is running wild with things of the world: fame, fortune, passion, possessive love, alcohol and drugs, sex, riches, and out-of-control emotions. Out of this distraction, craving and desire emerge, and the mind is disturbed. The mind is attracted by what it sees, giving birth to cravings, and subsequently the desire to satisfy those cravings. Slowly, the forces of earth become stronger than the forces of Heaven. Yet, out of our worldly desire and craving, stress and anxiety emerge, and the peace of heaven is hidden. This may all sound over-simplistic, yet out of this notion arises the understanding the saints had of the importance of detachment.
I’m slowly coming to see that detachment is forged in the furnace of solitude. And silence. Thomas Szasz writes: “Man cannot long survive without air, water, and sleep. Next in importance comes food. And close on its heels, solitude.” You don’t hear sentiments like that on television, which claims we need the latest fragrance of perfume or the fastest new car for survival. Detachment frees us from the control of others and introduces us to the indwelling presence of God. St. Augustine exhorts us: “Enter into yourself; it is in the interior man where Truth is found.”
Solitude, by enabling us to be genuinely alone, frees us from the panicked need for acquisitions, approval and acclaim. From his time alone, St. Francis learned to be prompted not by the opinions of others but by the divine Center within him.
Walking hand-in-hand with solitude is simplicity, a virtue exemplified by St. Francis. His simpler lifestyle freed him from the tyranny of striving to be affluent. His solitude fostered a simplicity of heart. Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Oh, blessed simplicity, that seizes swiftly what cleverness, tired out in the service of vanity, may grasp but slowly.”
Perhaps prayer has been difficult for me because I enter into it in an agitated state, distracted by thoughts, desires, fears and anxieties. I find it hard to “let go” and be still, be silent. I am learning that it is in the silence of the heart that distractions are diffused and the artificiality of modern life crumbles. In order to grow spiritually, I need to feed on a steady diet of silence, which I think will require me to unplug my television…at least for Lent.